The Paschal Season: Keeping Lent and Celebrating Easter
John W.B. Hill
One of the most constructive ways of keeping Lent and celebrating Easter is to stick with the narrative which the lectionary offers us.
Over the centuries, Lent became a time for self-imposed religious disciplines which commonly had nothing to do with the story. We were toying with the heresy of proving ourselves worthy of redemption (or, just as pathetic, winning the approval of other Christians — the very thing Jesus warns us about in the Ash Wednesday gospel).
Sticking with the narrative is also the way to make sense of that curious flashback on the first Sunday of Lent. In the Sundays after Epiphany, we follow the developing story of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (culminating, perhaps, in the Transfiguration); then, on the first Sunday of Lent, we suddenly find ourselves back at the temptations in the wilderness which immediately followed Jesus’ baptism. Why this interruption of a perfectly good story?
The Transfiguration (which may come on the second Sunday of Lent instead) is the clue. It follows Jesus’ first attempt to tell his disciples about the change of plan: they are going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected. This change of plan signals Jesus’ recognition that the growing resistance to his ‘good news of the kingdom’ must be confronted and conquered; and that can only be done by a ‘suffering servant.’
Thus, the liturgical narrative connecting Christmas to Easter highlights this change of plan. Part one of the story begins with the launch of Jesus’ mission to inaugurate God’s kingdom: his baptism in the Jordan. Part two begins with the dark side of that launch: the temptations of that other kingdom, which must be defeated if God’s kingdom is to be established.
So Lent tells the ‘journey-to-Jerusalem’ part of the narrative, the time when the fierce resistance to Jesus’ news of the kingdom is consolidating. Once we recognize in the Lenten lectionary this motif of growing resistance to Jesus, we may begin to recognize our own unacknowledged resistance to the gospel; then it will become clear to us what kind of penitence is appropriate to Lent. This is the season in which to recognize what it is that we must renounce in order to freely accept the good news Jesus offers us.
What Jesus offers us is what we celebrate during Easter: new creation. The Gospel according to John (the almost exclusive source of gospel readings in this season) provides the most profound exploration of that gift. On Easter Day we find ourselves once again in a garden with the new Adam and his Eve. This is the version of the gospel narrative that is told unabashedly from a resurrection perspective.
Over the centuries, we forgot how to celebrate the Great Fifty Days (what the early Christians called Pentecost), partly because we became fixated on ‘going to heaven when you die.’ What the risen Jesus shows us in this version of the gospel is that he ‘has gone to prepare a place for us, and has come again to take us to himself.’ He is the first revelation of that new creation, and we are what he is.
It takes a long time to let ourselves in for this reality, but the Great Fifty Days is a good start.